Sunday, November 18, 2007

Array Art (More Multiplicity)

Since that earlier post I've begun to notice another form of multiplicity. I'm seeing arrays everywhere, lately. Grids or articulated fields of points; substrates for transitory patterns and forms in light or sound. In United Visual Artists' recent Battles video, the band plays in a triangular grid of vertical LED strips. Patterns traverse the array, bathing the surrounding rocky landscape in flickering, articulated light. Of course UVA have got form with arrays; their 2006 Volume installation uses a similar configuration - and in a way there's a continuum between these grids and the more conventional (but equally effective) LED wall they used for the Massive Attack tour in 2003.

Edwin van de Heide's Pneumatic Sound Field - blogged earlier - echoes UVA's light arrays, but uses flickers of high-pressure air. There's another parallel here, in that the elements in the array - the "emitters" - are simple, physical things; points of energy. Other arrays I've noticed recently include Robert Henke and Christopher Bauder's Atom; a grid of LED-lit helium balloons that also move vertically under remote control. See also Artificiel's Condemned Bulbes (2003); and then it's a short hop to Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's recent Pulse Room at the Mexican pavilion in Venice. We could add a "mirror" sub-genre, with Aleph by Bengt Sjölén and Adam Somlai-Fischer and Daniel Lazin's beautiful articulated arrays. I'm sure there are many more.

UVA's body of work illustrates one of the reasons I'm interested in these arrays; they represent a kind of expansion, or explosion, of the screen. In part these arrays mimic everyone's favourite luminous grid, the digital display; but they literally take it apart; they expand it in size but also string it out through physical space. Instead of a vertical image (think cinema, painting, architecture, etc) we get an often horizontal array, a field to walk through. These arrays echo the display, especially its logics of modularity and generality - a logic shared by computational culture more broadly, where grids of uniform elements create wide spaces of potential. But these are not simply low-res displays. The visual unity of the screen is based on the merged imperceptibility of the pixel elements; by contrast these works expose those elements and emphasise their interrelations, making them available as kinesthetic as much as visual experience.

In "Notes on Sculpture 4: Beyond Objects" (1969) Robert Morris discusses the "anti-formal" move in sculpture of the time, where discrete geometric objects began to be replaced by wide, horizontal fields of undifferentiated stuff. He draws inspiration from Anton Ehrenzweig, a gestalt psychologist, and his notion of "synchretic" or "scanning" perception. This is an unconscious or "low level" mode of vision that Ehrenzweig claims provides access to richly detailed information in the perceptual field. To put it in modern (ie technological) perceptual terms, scanning occurs before recognition or gestalt formation, in the perceptual pipeline. As such, argues Ehrenzweig, scanning can easily accommodate "open structures" - complexity, contingency, chaos, the unformed or uncertain. Morris argues that the lateral, post-formal "fields" in sculpture of the time, build this mode of perception into their very structure; and ties this to a larger, McLuhan-like argument that "art itself is an activity of change ... of the willingness for confusion even in the service of discovering new perceptual modes."

Leaving the modernist declarations aside, there are some interesting links between this horizontality and the perceptual mode it demands, and the arrays of the works discussed here. Works such as Morris' 1968 Untitled (Threadwaste) (above - source) emphasise unformed materiality; in works like UVA's arrays or Lozano Hemmer's Pulse Room the material and the immaterial, or informational, play against each other in a very contemporary way. These explicit, low-res arrays reveal themselves as material structures (unlike the screen), but also as material substrates for dynamic, informational patterns and forms. The role of the light source is important here; in Condemned Bulbes and Pulse Room, archaic light technology is used for its material and sonic byproducts; the globe here isn't a pixel, it's a physical device, a buzzing, glowing object, a manifestation of electricity. Yet it's also a pixel, an abstract unit in a digital array; the two are complementary, co-constituents, rather than opposites.

Ehrenzweig's "scanning" perception also seems relevant all over again; it's exactly the mode of experience that a lot of data visualisation demands, and linked to what I've described as the "artist's squint" in data art. In a culture of digital multiplicity - where, as in these arrays, we are literally surrounded by digital grids - the gestalt or fixed image is impossible; "scanning" promises access to the pre-conscious information in these articulated masses. Sometimes these works offer a reassuring, unified image of the grid, where it's in sync, under control, centrally choreographed; but other times, especially in Lozano-Hemmer's work, it's a more complex, chaotic field.

What about the relation between this form of multiplicity and the generative variety? As well as an aesthetic interest in sheer "moreness" there's a conceptual connection. In a way these arrays are the inverse of generative multiplicities that sample wide spaces of potential. These grids partly act to manifest that space of potential explicitly; this is all there is, 64 balloons (as in Atom, above) or a few dozen LED strips. But what they reveal is how that explicit grid contains a far vaster, implicit space of potential, an unthinkable mass of relations, patterns and movements. So though the manifestation is very different they suggest the same dynamic - of the actual pointing to the virtual


Beth Williamson said...

Ehrenzweig was most certainly not a Gestalt psycologist. HE was not a psychologist of any description actually. He was an art theorist interest in psychoanalysis and therefore, concerned withj our depth-psychological experience of art, something not allowed for in Gestalt approach.

Mitchell said...

Thanks GW, you are quite right, on looking again at the Robert Morris text I have garbled his account of Ehrenzweig. Morris describes "scanning" perception as "a purposeful detachment from holistic readings in terms of gestalt-bound forms."